An intense and volatile screen presence, Sean Penn has been making his mark on American cinema since his 1981 debut in the ensemble "Taps."
While he has had his share of tabloid press over the years, it is for his searing performances in films as diverse as "Casualties of War" (1989), "Dead Man Walking" (1995), for which he earned a Best Actor Oscar nomination, and "Hurlyburly" (1998) that have established his reputation as one of Hollywood's finest actors. Since the early 1990s, Penn also has proven his mettle as a capable director and screenwriter.
Now gracing cineplexes as the fictional jazz guitarist Emmet Ray in "Sweet and Lowdown," Woody Allen's lovely mockumentary, the 39-year-old actor is once again receiving raves. Charming and polite, Penn is willing to speak his mind, although with perhaps a bit more circumspection.
In recent interviews, particularly a cover story in The New York Times Magazine, the actor candidly offered his opinions, and the ensuing press coverage created a small brouhaha.
"I get in trouble when I mention names," he recently joked when commenting on a recent romantic film that left him cold.
Emmet is a genius on stage (Penn took a crash course in the instrument to learn how to properly position his fingers, although he allows, "I don't think you'd want to hear the original recordings [of his playing]") but a jerk when not performing. He mistreats everyone in his life, particularly his one great love, the mute laundress played by British actress Samantha Morton. Since Morton had no dialogue, the situation was slightly frustrating for the actor at first. "It sort of grew like it does in the movie," said Penn. "At first it's, you know, 'Give me something!' You're monologuing in a way and you don't intend to be but the person won't speak back, so ... bit by bit you start getting used to it. She's so expressive it's not like you're not getting anything. It's just different."
Like many actors, Penn had long harbored a hope of collaborating with Woody Allen. "He and I had talked about a couple of things in the past that for one reason or another weren't right for one or the other of us," he said. "I had always wanted ... I like the idea of doing stuff with people who have, and he's uniquely like this, a committed, other take on the world and movies. So I would read a Woody Allen script predisposed to hope to want to do it. And I read this, and I knew halfway through I wanted to do this."
But he was also cognizant that working for Allen was an anomaly in how he normally selected a film role.
"This movie would not be an example of this, but when it's acting, money would have to be involved in that choice. It would have to be a movie that I felt I could make some contribution to and something I felt was a good piece of work. The same as before money mattered ... I'd much rather be directing movies than acting and then something like this comes along, and I think it's no secret that you don't make money on these movies, I catch myself reading the thing, saying yes. It's torture but there are worse tortures."
So, how does he know which parts are right for him?
"[You get this] feeling like you can't think of five other guys you'd rather see in the part, which happens quite a bit. I read a script and say, you know, you really should get so-and-so to do this."
Don't expect to see Penn in a big-budget action flick, either. "I can't do that. I see guys do these things. ... I've seen good actors do five movies in a row, the only thing the movie's saying is if you've got good abs, you can kill people and don't look back. And I hate it. I just couldn't do it."
Instead, look for him to return to his first love, directing, though he won't be like Allen and direct himself.
"Jokingly, I've said if I'm directing it means I already have a job, I don't need to," he said. I don't think I would be able to be fair to myself or the other actors. It wouldn't be for me."
Penn recently completed a small role in Julian Schnabel's second film "Before Night Falls" and will be seen next co-starring opposite Kristin Scott Thomas in the romantic thriller "Up at the Villa."
It was also recently announced that Penn again would direct Jack Nicholson (who starred in Penn's "The Crossing Guard") in "The Pledge" set to go before the cameras in February.
Novelist and college teacher Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas) is a literary luminary on the strength of his smash first book but his follow-up is going nowhere after years of effort. Blocked emotionally as well as creatively this rumpled pot-smoking eccentric has driven away his wife and squandered another opportunity for love with his school's hubby-cheating chancellor (Frances McDormand). Then an exceptionally gifted young student (Tobey Maguire) triggers a series of misadventures that exceeds anything Grady ever dreamed up for his fiction.
In a performance that rivals his work in "Wall Street" as the best of his career Douglas grounds the film with effortless-looking naturalism and crusty charm. His knack for bringing sympathy to unsavory characters allows "Wonder Boys" to retain an edge while stealthily reaching for viewers' heartstrings. Playing a sensitive misfit coming of age for the umpteenth time is no stretch for Maguire ("The Cider House Rules") but he's touchingly effective nonetheless. The invaluable Robert Downey Jr. ("Chaplin") is delightful as Grady's stressed-out but loyal agent who hits town with a hulking transvestite on his arm.
Curtis Hanson ("L.A. Confidential") takes the fine screenplay adaptation by Steve Kloves ("The Fabulous Baker Boys") and wrings it for every drop of humor and pathos. Wise and full of heart in its sly way "Wonder Boys" is the kind of deeply satisfying piece filmmakers must have in mind when they set out to make dramas. The obvious disparity between the film's wide critical acclaim and dismal box-office performance earlier this year led Paramount Pictures to give it a rare re-release as the holiday Oscar season gets underway.
Chris Remi is a responsible mostly serious accountant with the nickname Goat of Fire. Tony is his younger brother a struggling actor who's popular with the ladies and goes by the nickname Smiling Fish. When their parents die the two must learn to adjust to life without Mom and Dad. Meanwhile Chris attempts to reconcile with his estranged wife before meeting an Italian beauty while Tony must decide what he wants when he meets his perfect match.
Chris and Tony played by real-life brothers Derick and Steven Martini respectively are relatively newcomers to the big screen and their acting doesn’t necessarily leave a lasting memory. They’re brothers playing brothers no real stretch there. The best performance by far is provided by Bill Henderson who plays Clive Winters -- a retired soundman from Hollywood’s Golden Age. Clive warms up to Chris taking him under his wing to teach him a thing or two about the wonders of love and weaving the films various subplots into a sweet package.
Director Kevin Jordan also wrote this film with the Martini brothers and produced it on a shoestring budget of $40 000. Clearly then it's all about the story. Shot in Los Angeles over 12 days Jordan draws you in with the appealing story line wins you over with some comic relief and keeps you hoping that each brother will get his girl.
Does ... this ... movie ... really ... have ... to ... be ... nearly ... two
... hours ... long? By showing Basinger's character's extensive adjustment to life in the bush the film eventually manages to tell the story of one woman's quest to find strength through her pain. Not too original.
Though Basinger doesn't give the Academy-caliber performance she did in
"L.A. Confidential " she does manage to draw you in. She's most powerful in her dramatic roles and in this movie the drama comes when she attempts to deal with the loss of her loved ones. Sadly the dashing Vincent Perez as her new husband is forgettable.
In telling this story Hugh Hudson takes his time ... too much time. Easily "I
Dreamed of Africa" could stand to lose at least 20 minutes. Hudson does know however how to get the best work out of Basinger. And kudos to the cinematographer. The vastness of the African landscape and the beauty of its sunsets are a treat.
Let's hear it for the old guy who in this movie comes off sexier than his buff young accomplice (Dermot Mulroney). OK the old guy happens to be the gracefully aging icon Paul Newman -- as a feisty heistmeister who dodges a long prison sentence and then teams up with his equally conniving rest-home nurse (Linda Fiorentino) on a bank job gone wrong. "Where the Money Is" is breezy suspenseful and as much a love story as anything else -- if you call mentoring a new life in crime a kind of love. The mission-improbable caper is no more or less entertaining than a "Rockford Files" rerun but the film's swerving joyride takes its real thrills from the great escape that Fiorentino's Bonnie Parker makes from a dead-end life in the married lane.
Newman still hasn't lost it and as Henry Manning he doesn't miss any nuances in the edgy balance between streetwise wariness and amiable rapport with his sultry new colleague. The steam-powered Fiorentino has forged her career by making danger look casual and this is her most alluring work since "The Last Seduction" added another zero to her salary. Her chemistry with Newman a flirty twist on the idea of honor among thieves is really what makes this movie worth seeing. Mulroney is serviceable as the dim but lovable hubby a supporting role that's more foil than fully etched character.
We can all thank director Marek Kanievska for deciding not to have the May-December duo end up in the sack and leaving them simply professional cohorts. The director's admirable sense of comic timing works all the better by not letting the laughs get in the way of his leads' exploration of their characters -- although there's no denying the limits of this frothy genre. Perhaps Kanievska's greatest feat here is allowing Newman to retain his dignity in close-up.
It worked for Rob Schneider. Why not Dana Carvey?
The popular "Saturday Night Live" alum, largely out of the public eye since his heart surgery in 1997, will get a helping hand in reviving his career from A-lister (and fellow ex-"SNL" guy) Adam Sandler. Today's Daily Variety says Sandler will produce a Disney comedy that will both star and be co-written by Carvey.
The comedian, best known for yukking it up as shy Garth to Mike Myers' metal-head Wayne in the "Wayne's World" sketches and big-screen movies, is in talks with the studio, Sandler and producing partner Jack Giarraputo. They're the team responsible for Schneider's surprise holiday hit "Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo."
Mum's the word on the plot for Carvey's starring vehicle. But he'll get some notice as a supporting player in Sandler's upcoming comedy "Little Nicky." And if "Deuce's" $64 million domestic gross is any indication, the former Church Lady might be taking up a healthy collection.
Carvey underwent an angioplasty procedure in October 1997, at age 42. It was the capper on a down period for the comic, who flamed out professionally in 1996 with the ill-fated run of his ABC primetime vehicle "The Dana Carvey Show."
CAUGHT IN 'TRAFFIC': Harrison Ford and Catherine Zeta-Jones don't mind being stuck in Steven Soderbergh's "Traffic."
Trade-paper reports today say that the two stars have climbed aboard the Fox vehicle, which was once in danger of being junked. It's now parked at the studio's arthouse division, Fox Searchlight.
Ford will play a judge who becomes a U.S. drug czar. The film's based on the British miniseries "Traffik." Things get complicated when the judge's daughter becomes a serious crack cocaine and heroin addict.
The film is Ford's first foray into arthouse filmmaking. According to Variety, the actor will take a major pay cut from his usual $20 million fee. Shooting is set to begin April 2.
GIRLS IN THE 'HOUSE': Actresses Diane Lane and Leelee Sobieski will square off as mother-daughter rivals in "The Glass House." Variety says that the Columbia-based drama starts shooting this spring with television's Daniel Sackheim at the helm.
The 17-year-old Sobieski, last seen strutting in "Eyes Wide Shut," will star as a teen-ager taken in by a Malibu, Calif., couple after her parents die in a car accident.
'MONKEY' BUSINESS FOR NBC: "Dharma & Greg" star Thomas Gibson will be paid $1.5 million to monkey around in NBC's latest Hallmark Entertainment miniseries. The four-hour project, called "The Monkey King," co-stars Bai Ling. Russell Wong is in negotiations to play the title role.
The story, by "M Butterfly" playwright David Henry Hwang, is about a young American businessman and an academic who journey to China to do battle with mythical monsters.
DreamWorks' "Gladiator" should emerge victorious in this weekend's box office arena.
"There's 'Gladiator' and there's everything else," says one studio executive. "I think it's a $30 million opening."
The R-rated action adventure will open in 2,938 theaters with about 5,000 prints, which means it will play on more than 5,000-plus screens. Its first-choice tracking score in terms of all opening and released films in the marketplace is an enviable 31% overall. For men, it's a muscular 48%.
"There's no doubt about it that this picture could crack $30 million, if not more," an insider notes. "Last year at this time, there was 'The Mummy,' and it was an $80 million weekend (total for films making over $500,000). But there also was 'The Matrix,' which was doing $12.5 million. You don't have that (strength in second place) this weekend."
"It's the 'Deep Impact' and 'Twister' syndrome," an executive explains. "You've got that first weekend in May. There's nothing else to compete for that audience. Every theatre that's playing it can have it on multiple screens. It's the big blockbuster movie out there. People are ready for the blockbuster season to start, and there's only one movie that fits the bill. I think it will just suck up the business."
Although DreamWorks is distributing "Gladiator" domestically, Universal is releasing it internationally, and the two studios are 50-50 partners, sharing equally in its success.
Directed by Ridley Scott, it stars Russell Crowe.
Universal's "U-571" should descend one fathom deeper to second place. The PG-13 rated World War II submarine drama should drop about 40% and surface with $7 million or more after its third weekend.
Directed by Jonathan Mostow, "U-571" stars Matthew McConaughey, Bill Paxton, Harvey Keitel and Jon Bon Jovi.
The race for third, fourth and fifth place will be close, with Universal's family appeal comedy "The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas," New Line's time travel thriller "Frequency," and 20th Century Fox's drama "Where the Heart Is" all bunched together.
"Those movies are all likely to be in the $7 million range - take your pick," a distribution source speculates.
If "Flintstones" drops 35%, it will do about $6.8 million. "It's the only family film in the marketplace," another source reminds. "They hold better and 'Gladiator' doesn't hurt 'Flintstones.'"
"Flintstones," the PG rated prequel to the 1996 original that grossed over $350 million worldwide, is directed by Brian Levant and stars Mark Addy and Stephen Baldwin.
New Line's PG-13 rated "Frequency" should have good word of mouth based on last weekend's exit polls.
Directed by Gregory Hoblit, it stars Dennis Quaid and Jim Caviezel.
20th Century Fox's PG-13 rated drama "Where the Heart Is," whose core audience is women, was made for $15 million and picked up by Fox for domestic and English-speaking territories for just $9 million.
Directed and produced by Matt Williams, it stars Natalie Portman, Ashley Judd, Stockard Channing and Joan Cusack.
Insiders disagree about whether Columbia's PG-13 drama "I Dreamed Of Africa," opening at 2,112 theaters, will awaken in the Top Five. Going into the weekend, its 6% first-choice overall tracking was modest enough to raise doubts. Some think it will just make it, while others insist it will be close, but no cigar.
"It's a 10% first choice for women and absolutely nothing for men," an executive points out. "It's got a 17% definite interest for men. It's nowhere for men or for ethnics. It's definitely old. The tracking (in terms of age) is definitely over-45, and they don't go out opening weekend. It's got major problems."
"It could hit the top five, but the jury is still out," an observer speculates.
Directed by Hugh Hudson, it stars Kim Basinger.
Filling out lower rungs: "Rules of Engagement," "Love & Basketball," "Keeping the Faith" and "28 Days."
On the limited release front: USA Films opens its PG-13 rated drama "Up At The Villa."
Directed by Philip Haas, it stars Kristin Scott Thomas, Sean Penn, James Fox, Derek Jacobi and Anne Bancroft.